Alternate Warriors

Edited by Mike Resnick
Tor Books, pb, 434 pages, $4.99
ISBN: 0-812-52346-6

A Mike Resnick book is usually a good place to go after a bad reading experience, and Alternate Warriors does not disappoint. While parallel history is nothing new in the genre - for that matter, this is Resnick's third anthology on the subject with Tor - well-done alternate histories are almost always fresh, and there are quite a few well-done stories in this book.

I'd wanted to read this book since I saw an advance cover proof at Lunacon. The cover art is the sort of monument to bad taste (it's not often you see Gandhi hefting a rocket launcher) that gives a reader reason to hope that the book will not pull any punches. The premise Resnick presented held tremendous possibility: What if historical figures we remember for their peacefulness had chosen differently, if they'd been willing, in Resnick's words, to "fight for their beliefs rather than die for them." The choice of historical figures was left to individual authors, with Martin Luther King the only overlapping figure.

The stories vary from serious to silly. Even the stories that aren't terribly successful are often fun; the sheer improbability of Stephen Hawking or Mother Theresa as warrior provides a certain entertainment value.

But where Alternate Warriors shines is in the serious stones. It may be entertaining to poke fun at improbable warriors, but the most remarkable stories in the collection strive instead to understand those figures. It's easy to think of Gandhi as a man of destiny, and thus belittle his accomplishments. In "Because Thou Lovest the Burning Ground," Michael P. Kube-McDowell succeeds in bringing to life the young, troubled Gandhi desperately in search of guidance and inspiration. In this case, he finds a mentor who leads him into an old, dark tradition.

Maureen F. McHugh in "Tut's Wife" and Judith Tarr in "Queen of Asia" both succeed in creating strong female characters willing to take advantage of opportunities within their patriarchal societies. In McHugh's tale, the wife of the murdered King Tut fights to hold on to some measure of her former rank, while a high priest and powerful general scheme to win her dead husband's throne. Judith Tarr's protagonist is the mother of King Darius of Persia, whose cowardice in the face of Alexander the Great's invading army threatens to destroy his empire. To save Persia, she must eliminate her son from power and force tradition-bound nobles to confront Alexander in a new fashion - in a society where it is forbidden for most men even to look at the queen-mother's face.

Beth Meacham's powerful "One by One" is a stark reminder of just how important a man of peace can be - by showing how much worse things might have been without him. Nearly two hundred years after Tecumsah began the first effective Native American rebellion against European settlers, undeclared civil war continues in the United States (much smaller than we know it from the loss of the War of 1812, and uneasily split between white and Native American land). Endless cycles of terrorism, counterterrorism and revenge prevent any hope of peace or much development, with each atrocity serving as a ready excuse for the next. The story is told from the perspectives of two teenage girls, who have come to realize why their parents wouldn't let them be friends anymore when they were little, and who are beginning to understand all the hatreds and bigotries that adulthood in America entails. Another story which sounds this note of loss is Barry N. Malzberg's "Fugato," in which a young Leonard Bernstein refuses to use his connections to avoid being drafted into World War II, despite the pleadings of his mentors and friends.

The striking final story in the anthology, Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "The Arrival of Truth" is a slave woman's recounting of her youth. The baby conceived when she is raped by her master is taken away from her immediately after his birth to be sold. She is loaned to another plantation for her most precious commodity-the milk in her breasts, with which she is expected to feed a white woman's child. The only thing which sustains her are vague recurring rumors: "Sojourner's coming ... and when she gets here, all them white folks are going to learn the Truth."

Many other stories stand out in Alternate Warriors. Tappan King and Laura Resnick both choose to write about popes. King tells a well structured, nicely contained story about the World War II experiences of the man who would become John XXIII, while Laura Resnick humorously wonders about the cause of John Paul I's sudden death - and looks at what might have happened if he'd avoided it. Mike Resnick's "Mwalimu in the Square Circle" (a reprint) is a story of Julius Nyerere's encounter with Idi Amin - this time a literal encounter, rather than one conducted through opposing armies. In Mercedes Lackey's "Jihad," T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), captured, raped, and left for dead, receives a visitation from Allah. Kathe Koja's "Ballad of the Spanish Civil Guard" is a moody story told from the point of view of the poet Lorca, imprisoned and about to die. Michelle Sagara retells the story of Thomas Becket in "For Love of God" - only this time his refusal to accede to the king's wishes is less peaceful. Jack Haldeman in "Death of a Dream" and Lawrence Schimel in "Taking Action" both speculate about a non-nonviolent Martin Luther King.

Many of the lighter stories are quite good as well. Josepha Sherman's account of how famous inventor Jules Verne turns aside an alien invasion, all the while belittling H. G. Wells and other writers of "scientifiction" is genuinely funny. In George Alec Effinger's "Albert Schweitzer and the Treasures of Atlantis," the famed doctor must once again take up his loincloth and knife and shed the thin veneer of civilization to rescue a loved one. Esther Friesner has an amusing set piece involving, among others, Jane Austen, Napoleon, and Davy Crockett.

The cover really was a masterpiece of bad taste - and one of the most effective book covers I've ever seen.

First appeared in Horror magazine, January 1994.

Copyright © 1993 by Leigh Grossman